Five Favor Five
FIVE FAVOR FIVE: The Gristle was optimistic in thinking there would be consensus in the effort to draw five new voting districts for Whatcom County elections. After all, representatives from the Democrats and the Republicans had already agreed on the shape of the coastal district that would include Blaine, Birch Bay, and Ferndale; and they’d agreed on shapes for Bellingham districts that closely followed the contours of city limits. That’s three out of five districts; and the particular point of contention remaining was whether an incorporated city would be included in the district that includes the Foothills and Lake Whatcom—and there appeared willing flexibility on that matter by committee members. But optimism appears to have won out over cynicism, because the five-member committee did in fact unanimously agree last week to a final map to send to the County Auditor in charge of elections.
Theirs was a curious proceeding.
The Republicans had submitted a map amendment at the last minute that was clearly at odds with a negotiated, iterative process, and which moreover threw two districts out of whack by nearly 3,000 voters—a violation of an informal agreement early on by committee members that, where possible, districts would be sized within fractions of a percent of one another in population, a variance of no more than a few hundred voters. Republicans withdrew their proposed map amendment, but in doing so abandoned the one city—Sumas—they’d wrested for the Foothills district.
Republicans then proposed making the committee chair—former Bellingham Schools Superintendent Dale Kinsley—a voting member: An appropriate move approved by legal counsel, but necessary only if Republicans expected a contested outcome.
But there was no contested outcome. Having lost on or abandoned nearly every negotiated principle, Republicans surrendered to the map as presented.
It’s a sweet map, and one Whatcom County can live with for a long time. It fully preserves all cities as distinct communities of interest, and the final negotiations around the Foothills and central farming districts produced tight, straight lines squared north-south along Guide Meridian and east-west above Pole Road. No district is larger than any other by more than a few dozen voters. And the map gives the farming community what it has always wanted, at least one permanent seat on County Council.
Republican representative Brett Bonner read a statement, a complaint, at the conclusion of the meeting that frames up the potential lawsuit that has been threatened—directly or indirectly—throughout the entire redistricting effort.
“From the very outset of this process Mark [Nelson] and I asked what would happen if the two sides could not reach accord on a final districting map,” Bonner read. “County Council Attorney Karen Frakes has been very clear that, although the procedure is not spelled out under the charter, it is her legal opinion that the decision would revert to the County Council. This is the primary reason Mark and I voted for the Democrat’s proposal tonight: to ensure that the County Council has no say about deciding their own districting boundaries.”
It’s an odd assertion, as it is certain the Council’s only role—in the event of a committee deadlock—would be to gavel in the map presented by the redistricting map master, which Council would approve without adjustment or comment. They would not tinker; they would be advised by legal counsel against any tinkering with the work of the committee.
“The districts are not contiguous,” Bonner continued, “especially linking the Foothills district to Chuckanut. Not only are there no incorporated cities in the district, but there is no logical argument that it follows the law regarding ‘communities of interest.’ And it is impossible to travel within the district without either going through another district or into Skagit County.”
Yet Bonner’s definition of contiguous—predicated on travel by road—is at odds with any legally understood definition of the word; and Republicans themselves abandoned the negotiated addition of Sumas to the Foothills district.
“The new map,” Bonner observed, “purposely packs Republicans into the Farmland district, making it very difficult for fair representation in the Coastal or Foothills districts. The City of Bellingham has also been packed, but done so with intent by the Democrats for their own political purposes.”
Throughout their proceedings, no real evidence of “packing” was ever formally presented by Republicans. It matters only insofar as people are prevented from voting in countywide elections—an artifact not of the redistricting referendum (Prop 9) passed by voters in November, but of the “district only” limitations also passed by voters (Prop 1). Voters are not “packed” when they can select among all candidates on a ballot. It is true that some new districts will be quite blue, while others are very red—an artifact of the rural/urban divide that no map that attempts to preserve communities of interest can soften.
And, again, County Council played no role in the drafting of the language of either ballot proposition. They merely passed them along for consideration by voters.
In the end, we’re left with all the fixins for a complaint, but will the ingredients ever be mixed and baked into a lawsuit?
A court last summer was unwilling to set aside the lawful act of a constitutionally recognized legislative authority—County Council—to place a referendum on the ballot. What might we predict about the willingness of a judge to set aside a constitutional legislative action also then approved by voters? And—importantly—an action thereafter also unanimously and properly approved by the authorized bipartisan redistricting committee?
“A court interpreting an initiative measure must ascertain the voters’ intent in approving the measure. Where the language of the initiative is clear and unambiguous, a court may not look beyond the text of the measure,” the Washington State Supreme Court wrote in Pierce County v. State.
Here, voter intent is particularly binding because the approved language was incorporated into the Whatcom County Charter, and thereby became organic law of the county.
Indeed, any hope of a successful lawsuit went away when all authorized and empowered hands went up last week in favor of the five-district plan. That was what was most curious of all about the proceeding.
Money is frequently wasted in lawsuits. But here, the wind seems to have gone out of sails as SSA Marine and its associates have withdrawn their interest in the environmental review for the Gateway Pacific coal pier at Cherry Point and have closed their checkbook for donations to conservative party machinations.
High-powered feistiness among Republicans was very much in evidence throughout most of the redistricting saga. Now it has vanished, a month after SSA retreated, their need for a coal-friendly Council gone dark. Likely these events are not coincidental.
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